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The term was recorded first in the English language around 1400 in The Tale of Beryn: "The hoost ... set his hond in kenebowe." In the 17th century, the word was spelled on kenbow, a kenbow, a kenbol, a kenbold, or on kimbow. It may be cognate with German Kniebeuge (knee bend). The forms akembo and akimbo are found in the 18th century, with akimbo gradually becoming the standard.
One suggestion is that it comes from the Icelandic phrase in keng boginn, "bent into a crook", and it is possible that this phrase, or its close cognate in another North Germanic language, was borrowed in the meaning of hands bent to the waist.
Other suggestions trace akimbo to another Middle English word, cambok, "a curved stick or staff" (from Medieval Latin cambuca) or to a cam bow, "in a crooked bow". However, there is no extant form of akimbo spelled with cam; and the earliest form of the word, kenebowe, is a long way from cam. The bo part of the word is presumably related to bow, but no connection has ever been documented.
The Middle English Dictionary, with some noted uncertainty, proposes that akimbo might be related to Old French chane or kane "pot" or "jug" respectively, combined with Middle English boue, "bow". In that case, the word akimbo originally meant "bent like the handle of a jug"; however, there is no evidence for this, either. In Spanish, "arms akimbo" can be adequately translated as "brazos en jarra", which means "arms like a jar".
Another possible origin of the word comes from the Kongo language. The ancient "bakhimba" society of the Kongo people are the guards who supposedly watch their posts with their hands on their hips in "akimbo" pose. Additional evidence for this line of argument comes from the use of the term "bakimba" for this posture in the Black Bahamas community, and many other African-American communities. (Thompson, Robert Farris. 1988. "The Circle and the Branch": Renascent Kongo-American Art.)[dubious ]
Until recent times (the 1980s or thereabouts), the term was almost exclusively arms akimbo, with little involvement of the legs; it seems that it was first creatively used to describe sitting cross-legged. More recently, the term has been adapted still further, giving a second sense of limbs being splayed out rather than merely bent.
Following the success of Action Quake 2, from 1998 the word was adopted into computer gaming in reference to the dual wielding of two weapons. It was mentioned prior to 1998 in the game Blood, as a power-up called the "Guns Akimbo". For example, in a first person shooter game, the player might choose a "pistols akimbo" option to wield one gun in each hand.
- Thompson, Robert Farris. 1988. "The Circle and the Branch: Renascent Kongo-American Art".